From the time of Adam and Eve until the late 1970s, there was”with one notable exception”only one way to make a baby: the sexual bonding of a man and a woman. That number increased to two in 1978 after the birth of Louise Brown, the first test tube baby. Today, there are thirty-eight ways to make a baby, almost all of which can be accomplished without sexual intercourse.
Until the 1970s, reproductive technologies focused almost exclusively on helping a couple prevent conception. Although the tools ranged from the benign (thermometers) to the controversial (the Pill), most people understood both how they worked and whether their use could be considered ethical. Now that we have methods which sound like acronyms for U.N. agencies”IH, AID, ICSI, IUI, GIFT, ZIFT, IV”few people understand what they are, and even fewer know whether they are morally acceptable.
The rapidity by which the baby-making process has evolved has outpaced our moral reflection. While I lack the knowledge and wisdom to provide much guidance, there are few considerations, ranging from the personal to the linguistic, which I believe should guide our thinking about reproductive technologies.
The first is the duty to our neighbor. No matter what we think of the new methods for making babies, we should never dismiss the reason that they were created: to alleviate the pain and suffering caused by infertility, a curse that has plagued couples throughout our history. The Bible frequently mentions the problem of infertility and of the seven women mentioned by name who were barren (Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Hannah, Elizabeth, Michal, and Samson’s Mother), six later bore a child. In each of these situations, Scripture implies that God was directly responsible for delivering them from a sad fate. Today, the 2.5 million couples that are affected by infertility feel the same strain, though they have the option of turning to technology for deliverance.
The number of people affected is humbling: After one year of sexual relations, 15 percent of American couples are unable to conceive a child. This inability can become emotionally trying and leads many couples to seek out medical solutions to overcome their affliction. Every year couples spend millions of dollars on reproductive technologies for the mere chance of conceiving a child.
For Christians, medical intervention to overcome infertility may be acceptable, providing that they do not violate established biblical principles, their church’s teachings, or their own conscience in the process. This consideration will necessarily limit the types of options that are available, but there a number of methods, such as the use of fertility drugs, that do not lead to the most morally repugnant outcome: the production of multiple embryos that must be discarded or frozen and placed in storage.
Whether out of ignorance or oversight, the pro-life community has until recently tended to overlook embryo destruction that occurs ex vivo . Unfortunately, though it has now caught our attention, we tend to oppose those who would destroy embryos for speculative scientific research while giving a pass to our fellow citizens who create extra embryos out of the desire to have a child.
But while the motives may differ, all created embryos have the same moral status and deserve the same level of protection from harm. The pain of infertility does not provide an exemption to this obligation.
Fortunately, the first options that most physicians would consider are the least objectionable. Methods such as gamete intrafallopian transfer (GIFT), zygote intrafallopian transfer (ZIFT), intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI), or in vitro fertilization can be approached in a way that is respectful of human life. Whether they are completely acceptable for Christians is a question worthy of debate. In the absence of clear scriptural guidelines, there are bound to be disagreements (I would almost always advise against their use, though I respect those who do not share my qualms). However, there are some methods and approaches that are indisputably unethical and temptations to act immorally abound.
A prime example is the routine practice of creating excess embryos, a practice that is common, though not essential, to IVF. The procedure is inherently expensive, often costing between $10,000 and $30,000 per treatment and the likelihood of success is dismally low. Even the best of techniques offers less than a 50 percent chance that a live birth will occur. Because of these obstacles, couples are often tempted to set aside ethical concerns in order to increase the chances of fulfilling their desire for a child.
Christian couples, however, should never be willing to unnecessarily sacrifice an innocent human life. The extra expense required not to may be substantial or even prohibitive. But the cost of destroying the embryo is even higher. It is never God’s will that we kill one child in order to give life to another. If it cannot be done morally, then it must not be done. As bioethicist C. Ben Mitchell reminds us:
In some cases, it may not be God’s will for a couple to have children. Infertile couples should not be made to feel like second-class humans because they cannot conceive. God may well have other good and gracious purposes for them[ . . . ] Of one thing we can be certain, God has promised never to place more of a burden on us than we can bear (1 Corinthians 10:13).
This is an important point to keep in mind. Too often well-meaning friends and family add to this burden by inappropriate attempts to communicate sympathy. As bioethicist Matthew Eppinette and his wife Ginger explain, telling an infertile couple they can adopt or that they are fortunate not to have the burden of childrearing invalidates their feelings and mocks their suffering. Those of use who have experienced the wonders of pregnancy and the joys of childbirth should be especially respectful of those who have not shared in such blessings.
While we must be careful how we speak to our infertile neighbors , we also should be cognizant of the larger implications that our language has in framing the acceptability of these technologies. In his book, Toward a More Natural Science , Leon Kass asks us to,Consider the views of life and the world reflected in the following different expressions to describe the process of generating new life. Ancient Israel, impressed with the phenomenon of transmission of life from father to son, used a word we translate as begetting or siring. The Greeks, impressed with the springing forth of new life in the cyclical processes of generation and decay, called it genesis , from a root meaning to come into being. . . . The premodern Christian English-speaking world, impressed with the world as a given by a Creator, used the term ‘pro-creation.” We, impressed with the machine [ . . . ] employ a metaphor of the factory, re-production.
When you stop to consider the differences between such phrases as methods of procreation and reproductive technology it begins to become clear why social conservatives are losing ground in the fight to preserve the concept of human dignity. Any attempt to argue that embryonic human life is deserving of a particular moral status is undercut when we are using phrases like blastocysts produced by the technological advances of in vitro fertilization. The language of the factory and of human dignity is as incompatible as would be the interchangeability of machine and life. Such degradation of language only leads to linguistic confusion and muddy thinking.
In welcoming Louise Brown into the world we ushered in an era of new ethical dilemmas, a Pandoras box that includes human cloning, the creation of designer babies, and the eugenics of pre-implantation genetic diagnosis. Whether we create a dystopian future for ourselves will depend on whether we humbly accept our limits and fully understand our obligations. We may have 37 new ways to make a baby, but the purpose of baby-making remains the same: to bring into the world a human being created in the image of God.
Joe Carter is Web Editor of First Things and the co-author of How to Argue Like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History’s Greatest Communicator . His previous articles for On the Square can be found here .
C. Ben Mitchell, The Challenges of Infertility: A Biblical Framework for Responding Appropriately
Ginger and Matthew Eppinette, Sound Advice? Communicating Sympathy to Infertile Couples
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